In 2011, a mysterious marketing campaign kicked off and caught many young impressionable minds. A series of surreal, startling images, recalling that of a haunted house film but with a little bit of an extra bite flashed across the screen, with the tagline “Insidious Is Insidious”. What the hell did that mean? Little did many of us know… the birth of a new beloved horror franchise. Coming off their successful collaborations on the Saw franchise, director James Wann and writer Leigh Whannell were ready to take a gamble on a new concept: a PG-13 horror film about a boy with the ability of astral projection who ends up captured by a cruel demon in a place far away from his physical body. This place, known as The Further, is a spiritual realm where malevolent forces dwell, consumed by fog.
With a budget of just over a million and the backing of producers Jason Blum and Oren Peli, who were then riding the highs of their Paranormal Activity franchise, no one knew what was to come. But, against all odds, 2011’s Insidious was a cultural phenomenon that lit up the box office, making nearly 100 times its budget. It helped launch Blumhouse Productions into the big leagues and made James Wan a highly in-demand director. Furthermore, Insidious became one of the horror genre’s most reliable moneymakers. This proved true until the very end. The franchise’s final chapter, Insidious: The Red Door, was released in theaters over the summer and now stands as the highest-grossing horror movie of 2023 at the worldwide box office. Given this noteworthy achievement, it’s time to take a look back at the Insidious franchise as a whole for a ranking.
Once you go through all five Insidious films, it becomes clear just how high quality the series is altogether. There’s no obvious low point in the bunch, which is rare for any horror franchise. That being said, how do they stack up against each other? Let’s find out by ranking each entry of the Insidious franchise from worst to best.
All 5 Films in the Insidious Franchise Ranked Worst to Best
5. Insidious: The Red Door
Directed by Patrick Wilson
Screenplay by Scott Teems
Story by Scott Teems & Leigh Whannell
Released on July 7, 2023
There’s not a whole lot wrong with Insidious: The Red Door. It’s a slightly above-average entry in the ever-growing canon of “elevated horror” examining trauma, this time behind the memory-repressed Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), who’s now a teenager moving into college. Patrick Wilson, in his directorial debut, captures tenderness with a moderate eye for scares – a scene where Josh is in an MRI machine occupied by a nefarious entity will be hell for the claustrophobic. At the end of the day, however, it’s not much of an Insidious movie at all. After waiting nearly a decade to see the Lambert family again, audiences are treated to very little of Rose Byrne’s Renai Lambert and a plotline that involves trying to remember the events of the first two movies. This keeps the audience a whole saga of information ahead of the protagonists.
Pitting the Lamberts up against their ultimate antagonist, the fan-favorite Lipstick-Face Demon (or “The Man With Fire In His Face”) whose return has been long anticipated by fans since the first film, should be catnip to the creatives. But screenwriter Scott Teems is wholly uninterested in using the Lipstick-Face Demon, who barely appears in the movie after all the heavy teasing, or even the metaphysical realm of The Further as anything other than fodder for Josh and Dalton learning to love one another. There’s an expectation, with this amount of build-up of Josh remembering his past, for a grand payoff; a return to the untold horrors held in The Further. Instead, Insidious: The Red Door plays more like an epilogue to the original two films stretched out to feature length. And in that regard, it’s unsatisfying to the supernatural aspect the franchise has made its bread and butter.
4. Insidious: Chapter 3
Directed by Leigh Whannell
Written by Leigh Whannell
Released on June 5, 2015
After the cultural phenomenon of James Wan’s first two Insidious films, Blumhouse was left in a precarious position. The ending of Insidious: Chapter 2 wrapped a neat little bow on the personal storyline of the Lambert family, yet there was heavy demand for another installment. Series co-creator/screenwriter Leigh Whannell stepped up to the plate, envisioning Insidious: Chapter 3 as a prequel. While his directorial debut indeed impresses from a technical standpoint, the story at hand makes it obvious that Blumhouse intended to tread water until they found a direction to go in. The main plot of the third film focuses on young aspiring actress Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), her widowed father Sean (Dermot Mulroney), and all the cloying family drama that can be squeezed in until a wheezing demon from The Further preys upon Quinn.
The main demon itself – also known as “The Man Who Cannot Breathe” – nearly saves the film. Actor Michael Reid McKay brings an unnerving physicality to the decaying, gas-mask-wearing antagonist. The movie really works when it centers itself around this inspired creation and psychic Elise Rainier’s (Lin Shaye) journey back to protecting people from the creatures and poor souls that haunt The Further. You get a kick out of seeing Elise’s first meeting with spirit inspectors Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell), and Shaye brings such gravitas to the role that you buy her whole emotional journey. Sadly, Elise is much more of a B-plot to Quinn’s more generic narrative about grieving her dead mother with her dad. Regardless, Insidious: Chapter 3 has a cool villain and works when it hews closer to being a proper prequel. Better things would follow for Leigh Whannell as a director and Insidious prequels.
3. Insidious: The Last Key
Directed by Adam Robitel
Written by Leigh Whannell
Released on January 5, 2018
The prequel elements of Insidious: Chapter 3 may have been the best parts of that film, though it was merely an appetizer for its sequel, the highly underrated Insidious: The Last Key. Directed by Adam Robitel (Escape Room, The Taking of Deborah Logan), The Last Key is both in step and very independent from previous films in the series. Leigh Whannell once again returns but this time with a screenplay that fully seizes the opportunity to make use of Lin Shaye’s talents. The plot follows Elise coming face to face with the demon that has plagued her family for decades, jumping back and forth between the past when she was a young girl and the present. Besides diving into Elise’s backstory, fans get a taste of how it actually feels to be a medium of her power on a day-to-day basis in what is arguably the most expansive Insidious tale.
There’s as much heart in The Last Key as there are shenanigans in The Further. The central villain of the film and the way he uses The Further blends the surrealistic aspect of the realm with the Southern Gothic surroundings of Elise’s childhood home in Five Keys, New Mexico. This demon, Keyface (Javier Botet), also known as “The Key Bearer,” is a threat unlike any other in the series, mostly due to its unconscious influence over those under its control. Keyface works in design and as a metaphor for trauma in the way that The Red Door tried, and failed, to use the Lipstick-Face Demon. There are twists galore, and the timeline starts to wrap around itself in a way not dissimilar to Saw, another Wan/Whannell franchise. Insidious: The Last Key, despite its negative reviews, feels like a confident assertion of what Insidious is and can be.
Directed by James Wan
Written by Leigh Whannell
Released on April 1, 2011
The one that started it all. Believe it or not, Insidious was met with a relatively mixed critical response upon release. But to those who were there in the audience in 2011, it instantly became a staple horror film. James Wan made Insidious to prove he could do something without the levels of violence seen in Saw, and ended up making something even scarier. Part of the huge appeal of the first Insidious is the uncertainty of it all. It starts off as somewhat of a haunted house thriller happening around the Lambert family’s grief of their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) being in a coma, before one line “it’s not the house that’s haunted… it’s your son” turns everything on its head, unloading on the audience powerful new lore in the form of The Further.
Although there are brilliantly jump scares aplenty – the Lipstick-Face Demon (played by composer Joseph Bishara) appearing behind Patrick Wilson is an all-timer – what truly sticks with the viewer on subsequent watches is how it makes you lean forward by the world it creates. The fog and primary colors of the darkest reaches of The Further, the elderly medium and her oddball associates, Bishara’s aggressive string-based score that’s been lovingly mimicked by most horror movies since, and the cavalcade of demonic rogues assembled to terrorize the Lambert family all stick in your brain. The Long-Haired Fiend (J. Adam Larose) and the Doll Girl (Kelly Devoto) are the first of these cursed spirits to come to mind. Sure, there are clear influences, namely Poltergeist, but Insidious is a brazenly original movie that to this day remains as fresh as ever.
Plus, that needle drop of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” by Tiny Tim still haunts the dreams of a whole generation. While it may not have gotten its critical due at the time, Insidious (2011) has certainly become a huge part of horror culture, only to be rivaled by one other film in the franchise.
1. Insidious: Chapter 2
Directed by James Wan
Screenplay by Leigh Whannell
Story by James Wan & Leigh Whannell
Released on September 13, 2013
In 2013, the film James Wan got the most praise for was The Conjuring. Really, equal attention should’ve been given to that same year’s absolutely bonkers sequel, Insidious: Chapter 2. Leigh Whannell and Wan go for absolute broke here. Refusing to replay the same story beats of the first movie, this sequel riffs on The Shining by flipping the script and having Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) possessed by a malevolent spirit from The Further, trying to cover up the murder of Elise by his own hands as his family is none the wiser. Meanwhile, Tucker, Specs, and Elise’s colleague Carl (Steve Coulter) begin to uncover the truth about Josh’s demonic possession and the ghoul that’s been haunting him for decades. As the two plotlines converge, and as Dalton travels into The Further to recover his dad, Insidious: Chapter 2 becomes a love letter to the horror genre.
It seems as if James Wan had every idea he ever had for an Insidious sequel improved. The Bride in Black, Parker Crane (Tom Fitzpatrick), and his domineering mother, The Woman in White (Danielle Bisutti), provide a powerful crux to justify this film’s sick and twisted narrative. The scares are bigger, the demons are more plentiful, the stakes are higher, hell they even manage to way expand the lore of Josh and The Further itself, introducing a downright unhinged time travel element that would only be picked up on in Insidious: The Last Key. Above all else, Insidious: Chapter 2 makes us care deeply about the characters and the beautifully surreal spirit world around them. As one can tell from its denouement, it’s evidently meant to wrap up the story and does it with grace, yet that story is told so well that you have to make another.
Sure, without Insidious there would be no Chapter 2. But without Chapter 2, Insidious might’ve never had its staying power.